Coaching familiarity alters free agency for Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings are finding a free-agent benefit to having some turnover in the coaching staff.

With the initial flurry of free-agent signings over, it once again has hammered home the point that, while the Minnesota Vikings are willing to invest in free agents, they have taken on a different approach since Mike Zimmer arrived.

One significant philosophical difference between Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman would appear to be their view of players over the age of 30. During Spielman’s tenure with the Vikings, his history has been to skew younger. Some have even theorized that he is living out the Logan’s Run philosophy that once a player turns 30, he’s all but dead.

Terence Newman likely wouldn’t have been a Viking if not for Zimmer. It would also seem that Michael Griffin wouldn’t be a Viking either. Not that they don’t have the talent, but the history of the pre-Zimmer Vikings was that, once a player hit 30, pay cuts ensued and eventually they left. It happened to Steve Hutchinson, Matt Birk, Antoine Winfield, both towers of the Williams Wall and Jared Allen. When you became a man of a certain age, it was time to go – even if you felt you had good football left.

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The quality that Zimmer has brought to the Vikings that was missing prior to that was a legitimate coaching tree. He brings his own experience to the table, but there aren’t many veteran players who haven’t had dealings with offensive coordinator Norv Turner or defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. Adding position coaches Tony Sparano (offensive line) and Pat Shurmur (tight ends) brought a pair of former head coaches to the staff, giving them four staffers who have run the show in the NFL.

Each of them brings their own set of skills, background and connections. Last week, Spielman said in a radio interview that any free-agent signing is a risk, but that risk in minimized when he has a coach who can vouch for the guy (or shoot down interest) because of personal experience.

If you look at the Griffin signing, it has Gray’s fingerprints all over it. While fans may be familiar with the length of Gray’s résumé, they may not be as familiar with the stops along the way that made up that résumé. In Gray’s case, he was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee from 2011-13, where he dealt with Griffin on a daily basis. He brought an insight to Griffin that Zimmer, Spielman or Turner couldn’t. You can accurately chalk up the final assessment on Griffin directly to Gray.

Some of the other signings seem to be motivated by familiarity as well. Zimmer probably pushed his chips into the middle of the table to land linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.

You can make a case that the Alex Boone signing came off because new offensive line coach Sparano wants somebody he’s familiar with. Last year, Sparano coached tight ends for the 49ers. Had Sparano not vouched for Boone, he likely wouldn’t be wearing No. 76 in purple and gold.

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One of the aspects that creates success for franchises is having coaches that have a familiarity with how players are likely to function in their system. The Vikings staff clearly boots on the ground with Gray and Sparano in the internal debate of whether or not to pursue Boone or Griffin, and the more branches any staff can have with recent understanding of players from other teams is vital in trying to cherry-pick outsiders to bring into the family.

It could be argued that the Vikings had grown a little stale in that regard. Spielman is almost a decade into his tenure and, prior to the hire of Zimmer, he had basically dealt with the same staff – when Brad Childress was forced to fall on his sword, he was replaced in-house by Leslie Frazier.

It had a been a long time since Spielman was getting fresh intel from coaches who dealt up close and personal with players he was contemplating adding to the Vikings family.

As things currently stand, the Vikings coaching tree has thick trunk-style branches that have sucked in a lot of knowledge over the years and have their own networks of sources and informants.

The Vikings may not make a giant splash in the free-agent pool, but you can bet there are some players they’re eyeballing in both free agency and the draft and will be able to provide inside information about how other organizations think.

SUNDAY NOTES

  • Mike Wallace is looking for work and that will take him to Baltimore. He is scheduled for a workout and meet and greet with the Ravens now that the price of free agency is starting to scale back.
  • Free-agent offensive tackle Andre Smith is scheduled to meet with the Vikings today at Winter Park. The Vikings have been active in addressing their offensive line, signing Boone, re-signing Mike Harris and restructuring Phil Loadholt. The team sounds serious about Smith, since his is visit is scheduled to start today and continue into Monday.


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